Caught in the cross-hairs of a raging civil war in Syria is Ameenah. Displaced unexpectedly as a child bride, she navigates out of the heart of Damascus and plunges into the ancient city of Aleppo. Her voyage of self-discovery is a heady mix of the personal and the political—and the maddening noise of conflict weaves a fabric that entangles her with the lives of many around her.
As missile after missile brings the city down into a hapless pile of rubble, Ameenah builds it back up with her simple act of resistance—doodling.
Given here is an excerpt from this book
The sea grew wild as the waves chased after one another in fully rounded swirls. Snaking through the sea was a creeper that meandered through to the moon, its poised demeanour a gentle ambassador to the pressurising ways of the moon as it impinged on the sea. High tide, high tide! Drops of water flew in the air as the sea tried to reach higher onto the creeper. But something happened midway. . .the sea broke and a slew of butterflies pirouetted around the creeper, dancing towards the moon. The moon had been appeased. The sea grew gentle again.
The butterflies danced in the space between the two. Peace had been made. Something stung the crown of my head sharply and I jerked upwards, my hand unconsciously dragging the pen across the doodle I had scribbled in the notebook on my lap. A jagged lightning bolt had been forced into the peaceful scene, splitting the creeper at its heart. My immediate reaction was to glare, but realisation sank in—I was in class, and the sharp sting was from a piece of chalk—a fervent messenger of my teacher’s annoyance at my behaviour. She had turned red, her puce-coloured face inching to become one with the magenta hijab that framed her face. ‘Stand up, Ameenah!’
I stood up immediately, as a wave of smothered giggles rippled to the class. Through the corner of my eye, I noticed Rami, bent over his notebook, being the diligent do-gooder that he was. My heart skipped a beat at the sight of the back of his head, and my cheeks flushed. ‘What were you scribbling? Bring it to me, Ameenah!’ ‘Nothing, Mudarrisah,’ I mumbled, looking down as though ashamed, hoping she would let me be. Unlike the other teachers who we addressed with their preferred diminutive of madame, Mudarissah settled with the name that was once ascribed to her by a student who had graduated from the hallowed halls of this school many, many years ago, meaning ‘teacher’ in Arabic. ‘Then recite what I just mentioned now!’ she thundered.
I didn’t understand her anger at me. I wasn’t disrupting her class, I was just doodling away. I loved doodling—it had no rules. All you needed was space, and something to fill that space with. I aspire to be an artist someday and teach children art, so that they could grow up to become artists. Someday, my art would adorn every corner of Dimashq. Someday, there would be long rows of children learning to doodle. They could learn to doodle their alif-be-pe-te instead of wrestling with them like I did. Counting and everything else that riadiat forced on children could be learned so easily with doodles. . . .
‘Ameenah! You insolent girl!’ the teacher spat, jerking me back to reality. ‘Get out of the class!’ As I was about to leave, the bell rang. Saved! ‘Don’t you think this is over, Ameenah! I will straighten you out!’ The teacher droned over the jarring sound of the bell as she left the classroom, fuming. I sat down gleefully, stealing a glance at Rami, feeling an urge to continue doodling. A fresh page, this time, and it would be a doodle of Mudarrisah herself, in all her angry splendour. I drew three big circles, one for her head, and two for her body. I filled her body with angry lines and moustaches; the ruffian deserved it!
Farah peeped over my shoulder and giggled. ‘Make her face with a moustache!’ Farah egged. Afra and Maryam turned around to get a look. Encouraged by my unsolicited audience, I made bolder strokes, doodling knives and pig faces between the moustaches and lines. We sniggered. For her face, I drew moustaches for eyebrows, and they met right at the centre, where her angry, flared nose sat squat. I used red ink to colour her face, and she looked positively furious. ‘Ameenah!’ I shook my fist, holding up the drawing for the girls and the crowd of other students that had gathered beyond the girls. Raucous laughter sounded, some of the boys slapped the desks in amusement. I got out of my desk and turned to face the gathering, my back to the door. Still holding the notebook in hand, I pointed at my empty seat with my other hand. ‘Ameenah! You insolent girl!’ I screamed, and stomped my foot for drama, ‘Get out of the class!’ I swung my free hand towards the door, pointing at the door for emphasis.
A sudden silence descended, and shocked eyes froze, staring at the doorway. Was I that good? Had I scared them that well? I followed their line of sight slowly, and joined them, frozen. The book dropped out of my hand and thumped to the floor. Mudarrisah was glaring at me. ‘What is going on here?’ she roared. ‘Mu. . .muh. . .Uh. . .’ I stuttered. ‘Enough, Ameenah. Come with me now. You have been summoned by the headmistress right away.’ My limbs thawed. This was it. Mudarrisah had complained. I was going to be punished. I stepped forward, a little scared at what was to come, but mostly uncomprehending. ‘Pack all your things first, and bring your bag along.’ No! No! Was I suspended? I was only doodling in class—I hadn’t done something that bad! I didn’t want to leave. . .What about Afra, Farah and Maryam? Why couldn’t I be given a chance? What was Rami going to think? Hot tears stung my eyes; my cheeks smarted under the heat that my face was filled with. I threw my things into my satchel, as the once-admiring eyes of my classmates now watched me with a sense of disownment.
They must be glad they are not me, I thought bitterly. Where is your loud laughter now? Can’t you save the clown for once? I slung the bag on my back as I walked out. Farah’s face was down. Teacher’s pet! I screamed in my mind. Maryam looked at me, her eyes a mix of confusion, fear and anger. Truest friend. I won’t be gone for long, eh Maryam? I said in my mind, breaking her gaze and following Mudarrisah out of the classroom. ‘Have you taken everything, Ameenah?’ she asked, walking alongside me. ‘Ye. . .yes, Mudarrisah.’ ‘Good. Okay. If there is anything left behind, I will make sure one of your friends brings it home to you.’ I gulped. I was being expelled. This was bad, very, very bad. And unfair. All for doodling? I plodded along in silence till we reached the headmistress’s room. Mudarrisah opened the door and pushed me inside. My heart sank even further to see Majid, my oldest brother, sitting from across the headmistress. They’d called him! How could they? I hadn’t even done anything wrong! ‘Ah, she is here, Sir,’ the headmistress said gently. Mudarrisah ushered me towards the seat beside Majid. The bubble of fear in me had burst in my heart, and words flooded my throat. ‘Min fadlik.’ Please. ‘Arjuu almaädhira.’ I’m sorry. ‘I did not mean to. . . doodle in class. . .I am sorry. . .I will pay attention in Mudarrisah’s class and in every other class,’ I blabbered.
‘Sorry. . .sorry. . .sorry. . .min fadlik, please, don’t expel me. I am sorry,’ I mumbled, furiously trying to fight the tears that threatened to burst out. ‘Calm down, Ameenah. You are not being punished for anything. Sit down,’ the headmistress said in her gentle voice. I couldn’t understand any of it. Why was I here then? I sat down, my pockets full of questions. I looked at Majid, who looked surprised at my outburst. I wondered what that might mean when we would get back home. ‘Ameenah, look at me. Your brother has come to collect you. You are to be married soon, he says,’ the headmistress said, looking at me with pity in her eyes. Her words slapped me. This was worse than being punished. Suspended. Or expelled, even! I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t say a word. I looked at her, frozen. Married. Married!
My heart stopped—Rami?
A part of me had already given up the fight, way before it began. The tears that I had barricaded so well until a few minutes ago bubbled out of my eyes. The sea grew wild as the waves chased after one another in fully rounded swirls. . . . I looked from the headmistress to Majid. He seemed pleased and happy with himself. ‘My akhi Majid! Please, please let me continue. I want to study. I don’t want to be married! Please! Majid!’ I tugged at his sleeve, unbothered by the scene I was creating and the embarrassment that would follow to redden my ears much later, every time I would revisit this scene. I had something to accomplish and if embarrassment was the price I had to pay for it, I was not scared to do it. Snaking through the sea was a creeper that meandered through to the moon, its poised demeanour a gentle ambassador to the pressurising ways of the moon as it impinged on the sea. . . . ‘Ameenah, we cannot discuss our family matters outside.
For now, you must come with me and do as I say. Be obedient, Ameenah,’ Majid said, his annoyance slowly bleeding through his words and mannerisms. ‘Please, akhi Majid, please,’ I begged. My body was racked with sobs and I couldn’t hold back any longer. High tide, high tide! Drops of water flew in the air as the sea tried to reach higher onto the creeper. . . . A hand touched my shoulder and slid around to cover its length. The arm embraced me tight, and I turned in to Mudarrisah’s skirts and cried uncontrollably. She patted my head, gently, and stroked my back. ‘Please. . .please. . . .’ I wept with greater force, unmindful of the patch of tears and snot I had left on Mudarrisah’ skirts. Some time passed, with no one saying anything. The silence was punctuated by my sobs and occasional pleas. ‘Syd Majid,’ my headmistress began. My fierce weeping had turned into dry sobs now.
But something happened midway. . . . ‘I cannot interfere in what is purely a family matter. That you have promised Ameenah’s hand in marriage to someone and betrothed her is not for me to question. However, may I request you, to consider something I wish to ask of you? Perhaps you could see it fit to include in the terms of the marriage that Ameenah be permitted to continue her education. It will be of no expense to them until she turns fifteen.’ The sea broke and a slew of butterflies pirouetted around the creeper, dancing towards the moon. Silence had descended on us again. ‘I could speak with them,’ Majid spoke slowly. ‘She will be in Haleb, after she is married. I cannot guarantee though that they will follow through.’ ‘May I say something?’ It was Mudarrisah, this time. ‘A cousin on my mother’s side is a headmaster of a school for young men and women in Haleb. She will be welcomed there, I am sure. I will speak with him, if I have your permission.’
I drew back from Mudarrisah’s embrace, and looked up at her. A newfound warmth filled me, and love and gratitude flooded my heart as her words echoed inside my head. ‘Very well. I will make it a part of the terms of marriage. If you could so kindly share the details of the school she must attend, I will make it very clear.’ The moon had been appeased. The sea grew gentle again. The butterflies danced in the space between the two. Peace had been made. Mudarrisah borrowed a pen from the headmistress, who smiled gently at her and turned to me, offering the same benevolence to me, too. I watched Mudarrisah scribble on a slip of paper and hand it over to Majid. ‘Good? Now don’t cry!’ Majid said, folding the paper carefully and putting it into his pocket. I looked down at my feet. Majid stood up. I followed, pulling my satchel back onto my back. ‘Shukran,’ he said. Thank you. ‘Afwan,’ the headmistress said. ‘Be good, Ameenah.’ We turned to walk out, when I realised something. I took my satchel off my back and took out my notebook. I furiously skimmed through the pages till I came to my last drawing. ‘What is this?’ Majid asked, curious and amused at once. I ignored him and gently tore the doodle out of the notebook. Leaving my satchel on the ground, I turned around and walked back to Mudarrisah. ‘Here,’ I said. My peace offering. ‘Sorry.’ I looked down on the ground. Mudarrisah enveloped me in a warm hug, holding the piece of paper like it was a sacred leaf from the Holy Book. ‘Be well, Ameenah.’ Despite my tears, I couldn’t help smiling. I heard benevolent laughter when I left the room to walk out of the school for one last time, in that cold December afternoon.